How Much Do Elite Colleges Really Want Low-Income Students?

Barry Lenson

Do Elite Colleges Want Low-Income Students“Elite Colleges Differ on How They Aid Poor,” an article by Richard Pérez-Peña in The New York Times on July 31st, sheds some harsh light on how hard top colleges are really trying to recruit students who come from low-income households.

“With affirmative action under attack and economic mobility feared to be stagnating,” writes Pérez-Peña, “top colleges profess a growing commitment to recruiting poor students. But a comparison of low-income enrollment shows wide disparities among the most competitive private colleges. A student at Vassar, for example, is three times as likely to receive a need-based Pell Grant as one at Washington University in St. Louis.”

Pérez-Peña uses a simple yardstick to compare different colleges’ commitment to recruiting low-income students: the percentage of all students at colleges who are receiving Pell Grants, which are typically accessed by students from families that earn less than $30,000 a year. Some might argue that this statistic doesn't reflect the subtler aspects of college recruitment, such as a college’s outreach in low-income neighborhoods, or its policies regarding affirmative action. Yet if you’re looking for a statistic that you can use to weigh whether a college is really interested in opening its doors to disadvantaged students, the percentage of Pell Grant-funded student is probably the best benchmark you can get.

Here’s a selection of statistics that Pérez-Peña cites about how many undergraduate students received Pell Grants at different colleges during the 2010-11 academic year . . .

  • 22% of students at Vassar, Amherst and Emory received Pell Grants that year.
  • 15% of undergraduate students at Harvard and Yale got them.
  • 12% of undergraduate students at Princeton got them.
  • 8% of students at Washington and Lee University got them.
  • 7% of students at Washington University got them.

Note that all those schools have large endowments – among the largest of all American schools, in fact. So any thoughts that lack of money is preventing those colleges from recruiting lower-income students do not add up.

To be sure, recruiting disadvantaged students is not an easy task. Many students in inner-city areas have never heard of elite colleges. If those students have heard of those schools, they have probably assumed that they could never afford to attend.

But Richard Pérez-Peña’s article tells us that if colleges really intend to educate all promising students, it’s time to revamp recruitment practices and level the playing field.

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